An account of my adventure through Bhutan

Bhutan is the land of the flying dragon, chili cheese and Gross National Happiness. The country is also one of the few countries that are visa free entry for Bangladeshis.

Tourism in Bhutan

Bhutan believes in high impact tourism, choosing the quality of tourists over the quantity. They charge a non-negotiable US$200 per day cost of entering the country; this applies to all visitors, expect Bangladeshis or Indians. This $200 is an all-inclusive charge, covering the guide, accommodation, transport, meals, taxes and trekking. This policy has resulted in a low volume of well-heeled visitors and avoided the tourist trample that destroys the natural beauty that attracted visitors in the first place (read, Thailand).

Read more: 5 countries you can travel to without a visa if you’re Bangladeshi

An account of my adventure through Bhutan

This is one of the rare instances when being Bangladeshi is advantageous. Bangladeshis are free to spend as much (or as little) as they want during their trip. Bangladeshis can also form their own itinerary and can travel without a tour operator. While guides are convenient, they are not a requirement.

Read more: 10 cities to visit under budget

Getting There

Druk Air has multiple flights to Thimpu airport each week. It is the only airline that flies that route and there are only a few flights each week, so plan ahead! You arrive at a super small and cute airport. There are no lines for immigration or the long wait for bags.

Thimpu

On the drive from Paro to Thimpu.

Thimpu is a short 1.5 hr drive from Paro airport. Our pre-booked driver was happy to be a guide and singer of Bollywood music (especially Govinda) of this week-long trip. Our first stop on the way from Paro to Thimpu was at Thamchog Lhakhang. We went for a short walk across the traditional iron link bridge built by Thangtong Gyalpo, the extraordinary 15th-century Tibetan engineer and all-over Renaissance man who opened travel routes all over the Himalaya.

Things to do in Bhutan

An account of my adventure through Bhutan 1

Hang out at Mojopark

We arrived past sundown, met up with a friend and he took us to this bar/lounge– great vibes, music and great company. We met farmers, entrepreneurs and farmer-entrepreneurs for riveting conversations and a peek into the Bhutanese way of philosophizing. Mojo Park is a live music lounge that has bands playing every Friday and Saturday. Lounge is open every night– Wednesday being the non weekend night that was lit.
Opens at 7pm. Chang Lam, Thimphu, Bhutan

Breakfast and views at Tiji Cafe

The next morning, we needed coffee to recover from the many, uhm, enthusiastic conversations at Mojocafe. Tiji cafe served continental breakfast and a had a little sitting area on the porch. The cafe was right at the center plaza; on the pricier side but I appreciated the location, good coffee and better views. Then we went to the immigration office to go to Punakha. The permit was ready by lunch time. Carry a passport photo, just in case.

Visit Buddha Dordenma

We went on a scenic drive to go up to this statue for some classic site seeing. The gigantic statue, stands at 57 ft and is very impressive. The statue commemorates the centennial of the Bhutanese monarchy,  celebrates the 60th anniversary of the fourth king and fulfills a prophecy.  It looks super old, but its not, it was completed in 2016 (just saying).
Open hours are 9am-5pm.

Others and lodging

Other things to do include visiting the Tashichho Dzong , the National Folk Heritage Museum and doing archery. We only had a day and wanted to get out of the city so we were already on the move.

Bhutan Suites is the best option. The hotel is close to Changangka Lhakhang and value for money. Each room had a kitchenette, small living room, balcony and mountain views. Clean. A short car ride from the center.

Punakha: Activities and Places

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Dochala Pass

On the drive from Thimpu to Punakha, the pass is a short drive beyond Thimpu. Just take a moment to pause and stare at the Himalayas in the horizon.

Go white water rafting

The river in Punakha is a section of the Mo Chhu, which start high in the Himalayas and meets the Pho Chhu at the Punakha Dzong. “Mo” means female and “Chhu” means water or river, so this is the “Female River.” This section of river has easy Class I and II rapids combined with beautiful scenery, making it the most rafted section of river in Bhutan. We went in the last week of October, and the it may be called white water rafting but the water was relatively calm and felt more like a row-your-boat -down-the-river situation.

The overall experience included great guides who were super cognizant of the fact that it was my first time white water rafting, who were aware, who were acting upon safety procedures and had overall homie vibes.
Hiring rafts and guides 6000 Nu.-8000 Nu.

Walk up to the fertility temple Chinu Llakhang

So, this was a village nearby with a 15th-century Chimi fertility temple. That is what it is. It is also a chance for many visitors to be in shock and then snigger like 8 year olds at all the PHALLUS’ EVERYWHERE. Traditionally, Bhutanese believe that these phallic symbols help to dispel evil and to drive malicious gossip away. The Saint Drukpa certainly achieved his objective of showing us that the truth is uncomfortable.

Other things to do include visiting the Tashichho Dzong , the National Folk Heritage Museum and doing archery. We only had a day and wanted to get out of the city so we were already on the move.

Lodging and Food

Hotel Vara has good rooms with high ceilings and above the terraced rice paddy fields of the region. That being said, we had solid butter tea and breakfast at Hotel Lobesa, which will be our pick for next time. They had great service and some rooms that had direct entrance to a balcony overlooking the valley. Babee restaurant for lunch cravings.
St Wifi Restaurant for amazing dried pork and pea paneer.

Paro: Things to do

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Hiking up the Tigers Nest

Up in the mountains is the famous Paro Taktsang, often referred to as The Tiger’s Nest monastery. Built in 1692, this sacred Buddhist site sits at 3,120 metres above sea level and 900 metres above the Paro valley. We went to some bland Indian restaurant the night before, played with the puppies on the farm and woke up on time for this hike. I strongly recommend good quality walking boots for the walk itself. I had ACL surgery a couple of months before this trip so I gave my knees a break (and basically cheated) and hired a small horse to take me up to the cafeteria for 800 Nu. Even if you take the horse, you have to walk up from the cafeteria which is about half way or 1.5 hrs of brisk walking.
The way down from the monastery is picturesque and really, really worth the walk. Take you time as you take each stair through the valley.
Entrance fee is 500 Nu. Try paying the amount and getting your ticket before you start the trek.

Taking a hot stone bath after the hike

A hot stone bath is the most ideal way to deal with the inevitable muscle aches after that hike. We were staying on a farmhouse and had give the staff a few hours’ notice to draw the bath. They build a fire, heat the river stones for 4-5 hours and draw the bath with soothing Artemisia leaves.

Sunset at Namgay Artisinal Brewery

Go to karaoke: Karaoke seemed to be a part of nightlife at Paro. Our driver took us to a bar with old men, teenagers, confused tourists belting out local hits, Backstreet boys and Kal Ho Na Ho.

Lodging in Paro

We split our nights in between a homestay/ farm house experience and a night in a resort. It was the perfect balance between enjoying comfort and the luxuries of a resort and hanging out with locals and experiencing the simplicity at the farmhouse.
Navana Homestay delivered in its promise of clean rooms with high cielings.
We stayed at Udumwara  Resort. It is next to a flowing river and there are pleasant cottages, but the rooms were run down. Dechawara Resort came with better reviews and recommendations but was sold out.

Food in Paro

Our food journey in Bhutan was not one with variety, but lots of comfort. Bhutanese meals are primarily five items and a combination of chili, cheese, potatoes and lots and lots of comfort. I have never done this, but I ate at the same restaurant for every single meal in Paro. Kuzu Resturaunt is homely with the nicest chef whose motherly/sisterly presence was all I needed. She piled on rice, managed the boys’ multiple requests for more pork cheese and whiskey and gave me the recipe for my favorite dish (Sikkim Pa, beef jerky in cheese) by the end of the trip.

Staying Connected

Bought a sim at the airport, right before the exit. 600 Nu. Country code: 00 975.

Getting around

Our driver was dope. 14000 Nu for 6 days

Chattogram, shrouded in history, adorned by nature.

“A sleeping beauty rising from mist and water”. This description of Chattogram was given by Chinese explorer Xuanzang in the 7th century. And to this day, this description stands somewhat true. A 2000-year-old city, one of the largest ports of the East as described by Ptolemy in the 1st century, a mythical realm of hundred tribes and an exotic land where the mountains meet the ocean, Chattogram is a beautiful destination for history and travel addicts both. For those of us looking for a quick escapade this vacation, Chattogram is a destination that’s a package full of everything.

Getting to the promised land

Chattogram can be travelled to by bus, train or air. Daily domestic flights from Dhaka to Chattogram are operated by all the local air carriers. Both AC and non AC Buses to Chittagong leave every hour from Kamalapur bus station starting from the morning. But the best way to travel to Chattogram will surely be by train. The night train to Chattogram is a pleasant and comfortable journey and can be a part of the whole Chattogram experience if you consider it that way. Two night trains leave from Dhaka for Chattogram, the Mahanagar Express leaves at 9 PM and Turna Express leaves at 11 PM. Both will land you in Chattogram early in the morning. Consult the Bangladesh Railway website for details on the fare and timing.

Chittagong night train

What’s interesting about the night train journey is the small town stations it passes by on its way. Sometimes the train will stop at these stations for you to catch a quick glimpse of the lives at small towns. It’s like reading a short story, these small stations. It’s like the low lit platforms want to tell you a captivating story but rather decides to leave it unfinished as the train starts to move on, leaving a scintilla of mysterious enchantment.

Staying in Chattogram

Chattogram is the second largest city in Bangladesh and has all the elements of a mega city. There are cheap to mid-range hotels and reputed five and four-star hotels like The Agrabad or Peninsula. A good mid-range option is The Landmark hotel. Located right in the heart of the city and charging a modest price for quality bed and breakfast, The Landmark hotel is a good option for travellers with a tight budget and finer taste.

Places to visit and things to do

The long list of places to visit in Chattogram begins with the city itself. Chattogram metro, like any other city in Bangladesh, is not devoid of traffic and infrastructural woes. It has its fair share of traffic and pollution. And yet, with spiralling roads that run up and down on the hills and names of areas as beautiful as Cheragi Pahar, Agrabad and Pahartoli, the city screams grandiose. Only to be humbled by the kind-hearted Chatgaiya people who take a pride in the own distinct heritage and dialect.

Travel to Chittagong-HiFi Public
Cheragi Pahar

The city itself has a charming colonial vibe to it. From the grand red brick building of the old railway station to the historic old Circuit House, the city nurtures its history with a careful preservation.

You can climb up the Batali hills, the highest hill in Chattogram city and get a breathtaking view of the sunset over the city and the Bay of Bengal in the far.

Visit the Pahartali European Club, where one of the first struggles of Independence took place under Masterda Surya Sen during the British era.

Take a boat ride in the Karnaphuli river in the evening and top it off with a dinner at any of the local eateries with Chittagong special Kalabhuna beef and Mejban meal.

Travel to Chittagong
Chittagong Old Circuit House

When you’re in Chittagong, make sure you try Hydrabadi Biriyani from Handi at GEC moar and Dum Phoonk’s Dum Biriyani at Jamal Khan Road. Don’t forget to try the special faluda from New Liberty Drink House in New Market.

Adventure’s calling

Now for the adventures part, the first thing that you’d like to do is visit the Kaptai lake and kayak between the mountains. Get on a bus from Bohoddar Haat that’ll drop you in front of the Kaptai Kayak Club. The rent fee for kayaking one hour is 200TK.

Steering your Kayak slowly in the clear waters of Kaptai lake, through the mists, in between the lush green hills and forests, is one of the best experiences you’ll ever have.

Travel to Chittagong-HiFi Public
Kayaking in Kaptai

On your way back, you can take a CNG run auto rickshaw to reach halfway and the rest half by bus as usual. The road from Kaptai to Chittagong city is a rewarding one with Kaptai lake on one side and green hills on the other.

You can visit the Chandranath temple in Sitakunda. To get there, take any bus that goes that way from Alangkar moar and get off at the Sitakunda bazaar. From there, take an auto to reach the foot of the Chandranath hill. Climb up 1020 feet to reach the temple that’s dedicated to the goddess Kali and marvel at the magnificent view from the hilltop.

The Chandranath hill is shrouded in mysteries of ancient Hindu mythology. Monks in red overalls can often be seen sitting in temple doorsteps that forbid you to enter without permission from the priests. But the stories of Chandranath and its mythic adventures are for another time.

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View from Chandranath hills

You can also visit the Medhas Munir Ashram. Another mythical monastery on a hilltop and the place from where the first ever Durga Puja in the region started.

And of course, you can always extend your stay and take a trip to Cox’s Bazar. It’s just 4 hours away from the city and the largest sea beach in the world.

Goodbyes are hard

One does not visit Chattogram only once. From the deliciousness of the Kalabhuna to the mysterious journey atop Chandranath hills, Chattogram keeps calling you back for more. And perhaps the land of 12 awlias isn’t done with you yet.

5 perfect places in Bangladesh for camping adventures

As we skim through the calendar to check our schedules, we often struggle to decide how to spend our mini-vacations with holidays surrounding the weekends. Rather than visiting the eateries you come across in FoodBank, we bring you a more fun and exciting way to spend quality time with friends and family during vacation- five places in Bangladesh to go to for adventure/camping activities.

The Base Camp

Located in the outskirts of the city in Rajendrapur Chowrasta, Gazipur- Base Camp offers excellent accommodation and a number of activities. Some of their thrilling on-tree and on-ground activities for visitors include cycling, zip-lining archery, monkey-pass, forest trekking and of course, the ultimate ‘sitting-together-surrounding-the-camp fire’ experience! Base Camp offers accommodation in bungalow rooms, non-AC nature rooms and weatherproof tents as well as varieties of everyday meals- depending on your budget and choice.

Learn more about The Base Camp here.

Satchari National Park

Getting its name because of the seven streams flowing inside the forest, Satchari (meaning Seven streams) National Park of Sylhet provides an unforgettable experience like no other! Visitors indulge in the flora and fauna, surrounding themselves in the lush greenery of the beautiful forest. Being one of the best birding destinations of Bangladesh, this park provides you the opportunity to catch sight of some of the rarest species of birds. There are also tea gardens nearby for visiting; altogether, a trip there would surely mean a wonderful time amidst Mother Nature!

There are also quite a few adventure activities recently started in Satchori.

Nazimgarh Tent Camp

Imagine getting to choose between dining on the river-banks of the green-blue crystal clear Shari river or dining on a hill overlooking the mesmerizing Meghalaya hills. Indeed, Nazimgarh Tent Camp, also located in Sylhet showcases nature in its purest form. Offering weatherproof tent accommodation, Nazimgarh Tent Camp also provides cycling, boat riding, canoeing and kayaking, trekking and zorb balling activities. It also has three separate restaurants- one of which is set beside a beautiful river and the other on a hill with the beautiful mountains of Meghalaya in view.

Learn more about Nazimgarh Tent Camp here.

Munlai

Munlai gives its guests a memorable experience because of its uniqueness; unlike other places in Bangladesh focusing on simply giving you and your family/friends an enjoyable vacation, Munlai camp also involves the Bawm community. With a two-hour drive from Bandarban, the picturesque setting amidst lavish greenery, hills and the river Sangu- you reach in the serene land of the Bawm community who greet you with blissful smiles. Along with comfortable and hygienic homestays with necessary amenities, you also get to experience boating, camping, trekking, kayaking and the country’s longest zip-line. Moreover, enjoying the mouthwatering local Bawm cuisine served in native style using bamboos under the twinkling starry sky is definitely something you do not want to miss!

Learn more about Munali here.

Neocampers

Neocampers can be described as the family-friendly version of Base Camp; powered by Base Camp itself, Neocampers is ideal for family groups and school field-trips. Targeted at school children to indulge them in day-long fun activities and learn skills alongside mainstream education, Neocampers involves many enjoyable activities similar to Base Camp, guided by professional trainers. In addition to physical activities, workshops for carpentry, pottery-making, treasure-hunting, bird watch, campfire and basic BBQ facilities are also arranged here. Located in Savar, Neocampers definitely gives you a fun, challenging and learning environment away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Learn more about Neocampers here.

So, next time you unconsciously scratch the back of your head, struggling to decide where to go for an adventure the following vacation- don’t forget to check these five places out!

5 tips for the solo traveller in Bangladesh

Travelling in Bangladesh can get pretty hectic and confusing at times, especially if you’re travelling solo. But if you planning to ditch your group and set out alone into the unknown, you need to know that it isn’t as hard as it is made out to be. If you can remember some basics, you’re good to go.

Here’s a hands-on guide to help you navigate through the jungles and alleyways of this land of adventure. Buckle up.

Pack light (Comfortable clothes, Accessories, Medicines, etc.)

If you’re travelling solo, chances are, you’ll be backpacking in most places. Even if you’re not, there’s no point in carrying loads of trousers and tees on a trip.

Pack light, take only the essentials.

It’ll help you move faster and it’ll be easier for you to keep your belongings in check. Make sure you carry a few wearables, nothing too heavy or uncomfortable, considering we’re not travelling in winter. Remember, you’re on a trip, not casually hanging out in Dhanmondi Lake.

It’s not important that you look your best, but that you feel your best.

So be comfortable and chill out. If it’s summer, always keep a water bottle in your backpack. Bangladesh is a humid country. 

Do not forget your phone charger, earphones. Pack a few common medicines for headaches, stomachaches and such, just to be prepared. 

Get small packets of toothpaste, soaps, hand sanitizers etc. You never know where you’ll be staying.

Always keep mobile data on your Phone

The worst part about travelling solo in Bangladesh is probably the lack of navigational accessibility. The roads and streets aren’t marked. The local people will definitely cooperate but sometimes mislead too. If you’re looking for directions or trying to select the best routes to your destination avoiding traffic jams, Google Maps is your best friend.

Keep some mobile data always to help you find your way.

Also, you need to maintain a Snapchat streak, right? (No? Okay)

Communicate with the locals

You’ll need to talk to people on your journey. There’s a lot of talking involved. You’ll need to ask for directions, clarify your intentions of travelling to a place (I know right?) and so on. But most importantly, people in Bangladesh are generally curious and they’ll ask you a lot of questions and try their best to show you around and help you. Be nice to them and they’ll be nice to you. Bangladeshi people have the reputation of being the nicest people on the planet. You’ll get a glimpse of that reputation when you’re out on the streets.

Keep in mind that Bangladesh is a conservative country and it will be better to maintain appropriate attire to avoid harassment. Especially if you are a woman travelling alone. It will be best to get used to people staring at you. Most of the time, they stare because they’re curious.

Know about the fares when taking a rickshaw or a taxi. You have to bargain right to get a good deal on fares. Ask the locals for help and they’ll gladly help you out.

Keep your documents organized

Keeping your travel and personal documents safe and organized is one of the most important parts of your preparation. Keep your tickets, hotel reservations, your ID etc. all organized in a wallet. Keep your money and your credit card safe. If something gets lost, the return policy isn’t particularly user-friendly in Bangladesh.

Always keep some extra cash in hand, merely a precaution.

Be safe

Although it’s generally safe, it doesn’t hurt to stay prepared. Small robberies, muggings and stealing isn’t uncommon in Bangladesh. Keep a pepper spray or a small knife with you to stay vigilant. Don’t get trigger happy though.

Travelling solo can actually be more fun than travelling in a group. You get your own freedom to relax and explore. If you do it the right way, travelling solo can be the best experience ever. So, follow these checklists on your next destination and most importantly, do enjoy.

Wari-Bateshwar – finding traces of a 2500 year old civilisation

Waking up at the last day of the Bengali New Year was a tedious task, but  thank lord it’s Friday. The curse of an off-day persists as well, as boredom caught on to me pretty fast. After freshening up, an old letter hiding away in front of my computer caught my attention. After picking it up and checking out the content of the letter, I found some beautiful pictures of Wari-Bateshwar. I collected these pictures a few years back, and forgot about them. I made my mind up to visit the place as I shuffled through the pictures. And so, I readied up and left for Narshingdi.

Blessings of Friday also meant wide-open roads free of traffic. I climbed onto a bus going from Mohammadpur to Abdullahpur to reach Bisshoroad, and as soon as I reached the place I got on a BRTC bus going towards Bhulta, Naranganj. After a brief wait, the bus went through 300 Feet and Kanchan bridge and reached Bhulta bus stand within an hour and half. From here, I hopped onto a local bus going towards Pachdona bus stand, which took another hour to reach. And finally, I hitched another bus towards Marjal which reached the Marjal Bazaar in 40 minutes.

From there, I got onto a “Easy Bike” (a battery operated vehicle) and told it to go to Wari. On asphalt surrounded by nature, the Easy Bike soared through the lazy noon as my eyes feasted on the beauty of nature. The driver of the Easy Bike provided quite some historical information behind the history and heritage of Wari-Bateshwar village and gave me some ideas about Sir Habibullah Pathan.

Having quite little time on my hand, I decided to finish my exploration by daylight; so I decided to visit the Wari-Bateshwar Open Museum. This is the first open museum in Bangladesh, and here lies evidences of 2,500 year old civilization based near the old Brahmaputra river. The excavation of this place started around 2000, and around 50 archaeological sites have been uncovered til now. From these sites, printed silver coins, glass and terracotta pottery, metallic objects, and several Buddhist temples have been uncovered.

I took some time and explored this museum built on a massive land. A lot of pictures from the excavation can be found here. I must say, the museum being based under the open sky is quite educational. In this museum one can find a 2500 year old dummy of the map, banners describing various facts. A documentary based on Wari-Bateshwar is also available in here.

After exploring the museum, I started for the residence of Habibullah Pathan. His house holds some of the archaeological vestiges from the sites. It takes around 10 minutes to travel to the residence from the museum. I met with Sir Pathan as soon as I reached the place, as cupboards held various historically significant artifacts excavated from the sites.

This man is the reason why the Wari-Bateshwar region is quite known as an archaeological site. Back in 1933, local school teacher Hanif Pathan wrote to the Weekly Mohammadi newspaper on this forgotten region, and his son, Sir Habibullah Pathan decided to write on this place understanding it’s importance. Hearing his calls, on 1989, Dilip Kumar Chakrabarti from the Cambridge University’s Archaeology department arrived to Wari-Bateshwar and predicted it’s 2,500 year old history. I had quite a nice conversation with Mr. Pathan, and brought a book on the history of Wari-Bateshwar along with me.

As I was returning home, some rural festivals celebrating Chaitra Shangkranti caught my attention. I got into one of them and checked out the offerings from the stalls which are mostly related to the last day of Bengali year. Rural sweets and mouth-watering food was also being served.

The sun was nodding to the west, and daylight slowly started fading away. Sitting in a nearby paddy field, I enjoyed the the last sunset of the Bengali year. With hopes of seeing a brand new sun rise in the next year, I headed home.

Getaway of the week #6: Munshiganj

Munshiganj, also known as Bikrampur is located about 33 kms away from Dhaka city. An ideal location for a day’s visit, Munshiganj is a little bit underrated as a travel destination and the lack of selfie savvy tourists is perhaps on of the best things about travelling to Munshiganj.

To get to Munshiganj, get on a bus from Gulistan. There’s a BRTC run bus and a few private run buses that’ll take you to Munshiganj in 1.5 to 2 hours. The tickets cost around 60-70 taka. Try to leave very early in the morning and get down at Sreenagar. Take an autorickshaw to Gadhighat to visit Arial Beel and hire a boat for an hour or two. The boats should cost no more than 500/600 taka.

The Arial Beel is a massive waterbody between the Ganges and Plain. This depression remains submerged in water during the wet seasons, thanks to accumulated rain water and green farmland reveals itself in winter when the water dries up. During the rainy seasons, the Arial Beel offers a beautiful view of endless watery horizon along with a garden of pink water lilies grown in the water. Life is simple and peaceful there. Watch the local villagers catch fish and harvest water lilies. Spend your time in silence and bliss.

Check out Shyamshiddhi Math on your way back. The massive tower was constructed by a rich merchant of Bikrampur in 1836 AD, over the pyre of his father. The tower stands tall as the highest in the sub-continent, taller than Delhi’s Kutub Minar. The tower has compartments on it’s sides where birds have made their nests. It’s a site worth checking out. Ask your boatman for directions.

Head over to Munshiganj sadar, the central district and take a rickshaw to Idrakpur kella or Idrakpur fort. Idrakpur fort is a Mughal era fort built in 1660 AD by Mir Jumla II and is one of the most historically important constructions ever constructed by the Mughals. The fort acted as one of the three triangular naval defence points protecting the capital of Dhaka from Portugese and Mogh Pirates. Admission to the fort is free.

For the last destination of the day, take an autorickshaw and visit Panditer Bhita, the birthplace of the famous Buddhist scholar, Atish Dipankar. This is where Atish Dipankar was born and grew up. This is also where he first started is learning on Buddhist teachings.

If you have time, you can also visit the Padma resort and Mawa ghat. However, if you do not have time, you’re not missing out on anything. And of course, you can always come back. Get a rickshaw and go to Munshiganj Sadar again to get on a bus to Dhaka.

Munshiganj is a beautiful destination carved by nature and adorned by history. If not anything, the random walks down the streets of Bikrampur and the taste of daal in that local eatery will be a break from your daily life. As Anthony Bourdain used to say “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Traveller’s notebook: in the Land of the Blue Dragon, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is not the first destination that comes to an average Bangladeshi traveller’s mind when thinking of getting out on exploring a new place. But it’s a country boasting a proud South East Asian culture that has a rich colonial history and filled with warm, welcoming people, mouth-watering local delicacies and a crazy coffee culture. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon is also the key city that played a pivotal role in the US led Vietnam war during the 70s. But the best part? Ho Chi Minh city is crazy cheap. With a budget of BDT 5000 to BDT 6000, you can fully experience everything Saigon has to offer you in just 2/3 days. And that includes the cost of your accommodation, food and travel (Unless you plan to stay in 5-star hotels). The airplane fare is the hefty part since Bangladesh doesn’t have a connecting flight to Vietnam. The cheapest one would be Scoot air that’ll cost around BDT25,000 if you can book early, with one stop in Kuala Lumpur. Nonetheless, you can travel an entirely new country and experience a beautiful new culture within just BDT 30,000 and that’s something.

Getting to Vietnam

As mentioned already, the airplane fare is a bit tough on the wallet and the journey could take roughly 6/7 hours with stopovers. But Bangladeshis don’t need a prior visa to visit Vietnam, so just book your ticket, pack your belongings and you’re good to go. After you get down in Tan Son Nhat International Airport, get your on-arrival visa and complete immigration. Keep a few passports sized official pictures with you in case required for the visa. After you’re done with immigration, head over to the exit and you’ll find stalls selling traveller sim cards. Get one for yourself and activate a data plan. You’ll need to use the internet a lot. It’ll cost around 100,000 to 250,000 VND. It’s best to mention here that in Vietnam, everyone is a millionaire and handling your massive piles of cash can be quite a task for first timers. But you’ll get used to it. And in Vietnam, you definitely need to be cash-savvy.

After you get your sim and activate your data plan, head over to the bus stop located right outside the exit gate. Bus 109, the yellow colour marked bus will take you right to District 1, the most happening area of the city and also where you will find plenty of cheap to mid-range hotels. The bus will cost you around 20,000 VND.

Staying in Ho Chi Minh City

District 1 is filled with hotels and hostels of all sorts. It is also known the as the Backpacker street as the area is popular with backpacker tourists, tightly packed with hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs. Although one can easily get a room in any of the hotels, all of them equally decent, it is best if you pre-book it before your journey to get the best deals. You can get bunk beds in the hostels if you’re looking for the cheapest stay just to sleep for the night, or you can head over to the countless mid-range hotels just a minute of walk away from one another. Bich Duyen Hotel is recommended for a comfortable stay at an affordable price. The rooms are small but cosy with amenities one can only dream of in a mid-tier hotel somewhere else. The front desk receptionist is a lovely guy who’ll fire up a conversation with a smile. He’ll even make you a nice breakfast at the small kitchen at the back, if you ask for it. Free of charge for one meal.

Getting around

Ho Chi Minh isn’t that big of a city and it is best to walk around to really absorb the culture. However, it is a packed city with hundreds and thousands of people commuting by motorbikes on the roads. Fitting for its title of Motorbike Capital of the World. You think Dhaka has the worst jaywalking scenario? Think again. Crossing the road here can be an art. You can find bikes for hire almost at every corner of the city. They’ll keep calling you. But it’s best to use a ride sharing app to save the hassle of bargaining. Download Grab on your phone and use Grab MOTO to commute around points of interest. You can also rent a bike yourself and ride it around if you have a valid license. Watch out for the rental sign boards. You can use the bus 52, the green colour marked bus to commute inside the city. But beware of the tight traffic. Vietnam has Right Hand Traffic. Don’t get confused.

Ho Chi Minh has its own version of the Rickshaw. It looks more like a cradle than a rickshaw, but they are a dying form of transport in the city and will ask a lot for a ride, if you find one. Nonetheless, they can be a nice experience if you’re willing to pay for it.

Places to see, things to do

The streets of Saigon are a bold mixture of the old and the new. One cannot but notice the stark contrast between the small street vendors selling local authenticity in the old ways and the burgeoning Saigon skyline just on the other side housing malls, 5-star hotels and corporate offices. Saigon has a lot to offer. From to narrow alleys of the local neighborhood to wide and polished avenues with lush green gardens and colonial structures between them.

Saigon is the French Riviera of Southeast Asia. Old colonial structures pop up everywhere in this cacophonous city. The city hall built in 1902 is a remarkable structure, a reminder of the French Colonial history of this region. Although it isn’t open to the public, the structure has been preserved and is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in Saigon.

There is of course the Notre Dame Basilica. Built in 1863, the Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most sophisticated French structures in Saigon. One of the many fine architectures built by the French in Vietnam, the Notre Dame is a worthy counterpart of its namesake in Paris in terms of Grandeur.

Right beside this, is the Saigon Central Post Office. This magnificent building has yet again a French architecture and is always buzzing with post office employees and tourists alike.

There is the historic Ben Thanh market which is basically the New Market of Vietnam. Visit Ben Thanh for a shopping spree of the traditional Vietnamese goods. Haggling here is an art form, but visiting from Bangladesh, you shouldn’t be a stranger to it.

Saigon has countless old pagodas. Visit one to experience a unique South East Asian Buddhist culture. The pristine environment will certainly take your breath away and is surely a spiritual experience for some.

Take a walk along the Dong Khoi street to experience what life was like in the old war era Vietnam or head over to the Thu Thiem Bridge during dusk to see the magnificent Saigon Skyline in sunset.

Visit the war remnants museum and see the exhibitions solely dedicated to the infamous Vietnam war. The atrocities caused by the US Army, the horrors of chemical warfare and how the Vietnamese people fought back under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

At night, the area where you’d most likely be staying comes out alive. Just around the corner of District one is the famous Bui Vien Walking street. Just as the clock strikes midnight, the cafes, bars and clubs of this street spring open and you will see both locals and tourists sit on the side of the road on small plastic tools, enjoying music, mingling and having local beers. The entire street remains open the entire night and keeps buzzing with loud music and people everywhere. Take a walk down this street to experience a nightlife like nowhere else in the world.

If you have time, head outside the city to explore the Vietnamese countryside away from the bustling city. The Vietnamese countryside is adorned with lush green rice fields and rivers and small hills in between them. Head over to the Mekong delta to see what it is like to live in a Vietnamese village. See the Cia Rang floating market, and entire market place in boats on the river Saigon. Visit Chu Chi Tunnels, a massive network of underground tunnels used by the Vietnamese guerillas during the time of war. The tunnels are extremely narrow so be advised if you have claustrophobia.

Most important of all, take random aimless walks down the streets of Saigon, visit local shops, local eateries, talk to local people and absorb the culture. That is the best part of exploring Saigon. People in Saigon are very friendly and often curious. You will often find random locals asking you where you’re from, engage with you in a friendly chat and invite you over to Saigon again in the future.

The weather in Saigon is extremely humid. Wear light clothes and always keep a bottle of water with you.

Bon Appetit!

Saigon is an eater’s heaven. Mouth watering local delicacies are found in countless street stalls on almost every street corner. Try Banh Mi, the Vietnamese style ham sandwich or a bowl of delicious and warm Pho noodles on any of the local street stalls. Street food vendors are here like vampires. They come out at night. You will find so many individual and groups of stalls scattered around the city. Locals love sitting on the sidewalks and enjoying a hot bowl of Pho or a dish of rice after a day’s hard work. Check out Co Bac and Co Giang, two of the most famous street food alleyways. Most of the dishes here will cost you around a 15,000 to 20,000 VND.

Vietnamese are crazy about their coffee. It makes sense since Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world. You’ll find Ca Phe Sua Da, the Vietnamese cold coffee almost on every street. The Highlands Coffee, the Vietnamese version of Starbucks is everywhere and they sell the special French pressed Vietnamese coffee. Almost all the variations of coffee can be found in Vietnam, starting from Coconut coffee to cheese coffee and everything in between. They even have coffee flavoured Coca-Cola.

Of course, there are international food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King as well, along with numerous mid to high end cafes and restaurant selling local delicacies in traditional environments. Eat to your heart’s content and don’t forget to leave a tip.

Goodbye Saigon

To get back to the airport you can either get a grab or take the bus. But taking a grab is recommended because you’re more likely to get a cheaper rate thanks to Promo codes and you really get to see most of Saigon on your way back to the airport travelling on the back of a scooter. Leave well ahead of time, keeping in mind the traffic.

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon is a city that can be explored in just two days. But the same cannot be said for Vietnam as a country. There are hundreds of places and experiences waiting for you. From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay and more. Saigon will surely leave you hungry for more of Vietnam and its never too late to start planning another trip to the land of the blue dragon.

Getaway of the week #5: the Republic of Uttara

Cover illustration by Fahim Anzoom Rumman (botagainsthumanity). Find his page here.

This week’s getaway is a special place located about 13 km away from the city of Dhaka, the Republic of Uttara. Uttara is a nice little place to leave the city for a day, away from the hectic weekdays. Ideally, this little, somewhat primitive small city-state should not take more than 30 minutes to visit but thanks to the adventurous route that leads to this place, it almost takes an entire day to visit Uttara and come back to the city, safe and sound.

So, if you’re tired of all the cliched places people visit these days like Sreemangal and Cox’s Bazaar (or you want to turn your image of a lazy duck who sits at home all day playing PUBG into that of a spontaneous traveller), buckle up. You’re in for the adventure of a lifetime.

Getting to Uttara is the tough part. Finding a bus that goes to that town is tougher. You have to wait in Shahbagh square for at least 20 minutes and literally beg the conductor mamas before someone takes pity on you and lets you on their bus. You might have to keep standing all the way so wear light and comfortable clothes and keep your baggage low. We recommend you don’t carry expensive gadgets, especially a camera. Two reasons. Number 1, Republic of Uttara has little to none views that would require the attention of a lens. And if you want to take a photo of the daily life of Uttara people let us tell you that this is the place where urban planning goes to die. Uttara is rich in experience, not in suitable photography subjects. Number 2, you will get mugged in Uttara and lose your gadgets. Even if you get spared in Uttara, you will most definitely get pickpocketed on the bus. So, take ample precaution in protecting your belongings.

Illustration/image by Inksmith. Find more of his fantastic artwork here.

The bus journey to Uttara can take we-don’t-know-how-many-hours long. If you are blessed, it might, just might take 2 hours, if you’re lucky. Take a few dry snacks with you and a bottle of cold water to save you from dehydration (unless you’re fasting, in which case…you will die.). Try not to get annoyed by people falling over your shoulders. Bangladeshi people have little to no concept of personal space and they are generally curious in nature. But they’re all good-hearted people, we’re sure. At least that’s what the brochure says.

After getting down in Uttara, roam around the broken and tattered roads  for a while. Watch what life is like in a small town away from civilisation. Eat cheap street food and gamble with diarrhoea if you dare. Take a rickshaw and head to a famous tourist spot called Dia Bari. This is the pride of Uttara. Anyone who’s from that region will proudly boast about Dia Bari and recommend you this place when going to Uttara. In reality, it is nothing much. Just an open field with a small water-body nearby. But hey, even that is hard to find in Dhaka so the tourist spot tag is justified for this green field.

Get back to town after you’re done exploring Dia Bari. Go window shopping in the street market that illegally occupies all the footpaths you were supposed to walk on. Have the roadside milk and water drink that they call tea. Roam around the town again to explore the bits and pieces of the old way of life the natives of this land once lived.

By the time you’re done with everything, it’ll almost be dusk. Prepare your mind and your body for another long journey back to the civilisation and get on a bus, if you can.

The Republic of Uttara is a small, underrated place to be visited. But the experience is one of a kind. There is no immigration system yet so you don’t need to get your visa done. But we hear it’s in the works. We cannot promise you that you’ll fall in love with Uttara, but we can promise you one other thing. When you get back from Uttara to Dhaka, you’ll realise how much you loved Dhaka. Uttara is your place to go if you want to rekindle your love for Godforsaken Dhaka.

Getaway of the week #4 – Dohar

It’s called the mini Cox’s Bazar. And for good reasons too. The endless horizon of water and splashing small waves at your feet on the muddy banks does remind one of Cox’s Bazar. Yes, talking about Moinot Ghat or Dohar as many prefer to call it. About one and a half hours journey away from Dhaka, Dohar is the perfect place to spend a day away from the busy urban life. The best time to visit Dohar would be now, as the continuous rain has filled the river Padma to the brink and the overcast sky and the calm Padma waters together make an unforgettable view to feast your eyes on.

Buses to Dohar leave from Gulistan from as early as 6.30AM. This one bus, Jamuna express will drop you off right on Moinot Ghat and costs 90tk. If you start early, expect to reach your destination by 8.30AM. If you’re lucky and the sky stays overcast, you’re in for a treat. Walk around barefooted by the river and let the small waves slowly break down at your feet. You can sit there if you like, or on any of the boats tied there to the ground. Maybe you’ll even get to listen to folk music from the half distorted Chinese mobile speaker of a nearby fisherman. It doesn’t sound bad at all in that setting.

Hire a boat for 200tk per hour and go deeper into the river, float around aimlessly, watch the villagers fishing, feel the cold and calming river winds against your face. If you’ve had a hectic week at school or work, that’s all the therapy you’ll ever need.

You can get down and take a bath in the river if you want. But do not try it if you’re not good at swimming. Dohar has had a disturbing history of drownings and a few danger spots even. If you’re adamant, make sure you take advise from the locals on how to avoid the dangerous spots. Above all, stay safe.

For lunch, you can find decent hotels at the river bank. Maybe give the “Bhaat, Bhorta, Ilish maach” platter a try. It certainly brings a little different local taste to the mouth. After lunch, you can start heading back, but this time instead of getting on the bus, why not explore around a bit?

Dohar falls under Kartikpur and Kartikpur is a small and quiet village-town. You can walk in the narrow village roads, among the tree lines, exploring a village life from a more personal point of view. The idea is not get to Kartikpur Baazar and from there you’ll find a bus to Dhaka. You’ll get auto rickshaws that’ll take you to Kartikpur Baazar. Hop in one and after arriving at the Baazar look around for Niranjan Mishtanno Vandar to try one of the best sweets ever produced in the country. If you’re into sweets, of course. (Who isn’t!)

There’s a small bridge, and across it you’ll find the ruins of an ancient temple. Visit the temple if you want.

The last bus to Dhaka leaves at 6 so get your exploration wrapped up by then and hop on the last bus to get back to Dhaka by 8.

We will be traveling down this road again, for our next Getaway of the Week, Munshigonj. Happy exploring!

Getaway of the week #3 – Cumilla

Cumilla is a famous and historical town with a bagful of surprises. With a rich history spanning from ancient Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms to the British Era, World War 2 and home to the famous Rosh-malai, Cumilla is one of the most underrated tourist destinations in Bangladesh.

Located 100 km away from Dhaka, you can get to Cumilla in about 3 hours by bus. Comfortable AC buses operated by BRTC leave from Kamalapur from 7AM onward. The ticket costs TK 150. The cost is cheaper if you choose non-AC buses.

After getting off the bus, have breakfast in any of the local restaurants. There are a lot of local and highway restaurants around the bus drop off point.

From there you can take a rickshaw to the War Cemetery. Costs TK 30. The War Cemetery is a peaceful place that houses the deceased allied and a few axis Japanese soldiers who died during World War 2. The cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth Society and is a calm and quiet place to spend some time and contemplate the fate of the fallen soldiers.

You can take an auto rickshaw to the ruins of the palace of Queen Maynamati, and explore the rich history once this region held. You can walk around and discover hidden paths that goes up the hill and leads to a temple, or another path that leads into a jungle. There’s all kinds of hidden gems to discover there.

From there, you can take a CNG to the Shalban Vihara, the ruins of an ancient Buddhist Monastery. There’s a new massive Buddhist temple there as well, built quite recently. Pay a visit there to experience a different culture. Explore the deep Shalban forest. Visit the Maynamati museum to learn about Cumilla’s history.

Visit the Jagannath Temple by an auto rickshaw. The Jagannath Temple is also called the seventeen jewel temple from the seventeen jewels it once crowned, but are currently damaged.

Besides the magnificent histories of ancient kings and Buddhist monasteries, Cumilla is also steeped in colonial history. Cumilla Victoria Government College in the city was named in memory of Queen Victoria. On the darker side of colonial history, communal tension spread over Cumilla when a Muslim was shot in the town during the partition of Bengal in 1905. In 1931, approximately 4000 peasants in Mohini village revolted against a land revenue tax. The British Gurkha soldiers fired indiscriminately on the crowd, killing four people. In a major peasant gathering, the police fired at Hasnabad of Laksam in 1932. Two people were killed and many were wounded.

You’ll find bits and pieces of the colonial era lying almost everywhere in Cumilla. After you’re done with all of that, visit Monohorpur to taste the Rosh Malai from the famous Matribhandar. Take a rickshaw and visit Rani Kuthir and Dharmasagar Lake.

It’ll almost be evening by the time you’re done exploring Cumilla. Go to the bus stop and catch a bus to Dhaka to get back in the city by 9.